Friday, July 01, 2016

YesPath Takes Its Own Route to Managing ABM Journeys

Account based marketing is clearly an important technique for B2B marketers, but I don’t see it displacing all other approaches. For exactly that reason, I also don’t see specialized ABM systems replacing the core marketing databases and decision engines that coordinate all marketing efforts. Today, the core roles are most often filled by marketing automation, although there are emerging alternatives such as Customer Data Platforms and Journey Orchestration Engines. Most of these tools will eventually add ABM features if they don’t have them already.

But marketers whose current tools don’t support ABM will need to something new if they want to participate in the ABM gold rush. This gives ABM database and orchestration specialists an opportunity to sell to clients who would otherwise be uninterested in new core systems. The long term, though often unstated, goal of most ABM specialists is to replace the incumbents as their clients’ primary marketing platforms.* But before they can do that, they need to get their foot in the door by making ABM easier than it would be with clients’ existing tools.

The main function provided by ABM specialists is account-level data aggregation.  This in turn makes possible account-level analytics and orchestration. But data and analytics don’t create revenue by themselves, so vendors naturally stress their orchestration features. Hence “plays” from Engagio (discussed here ) and “recipes” in ZenIQ (discussed here).  It’s important to recognize that both those systems also build an account-oriented database and provide ABM analytics. They are also similar in relying primarily on external systems to deliver the messages they select.  This is a primary difference from conventional marketing automation products, which deliver email and often other types of messages directly. (Special bonus: by relying on marketing automation to deliver their messages, the ABM orchestrators also show that they don’t intend to replace existing marketing automation systems, removing one objection to their purchase. What they don’t say is they are diminishing the role of marketing automation from the central marketing platform to a simple delivery system, clearing the way for the ABM vendors to eventually take over the central role.  But don’t tell anyone I told you.)

YesPath is another ABM orchestrator (ABMO?). It too builds an account-oriented database, provides ABM analytics, and selects messages to be delivered by other systems. Of course, every system is unique.  Here are some important details that distinguish YesPath:

- focus on unknown prospects. YesPath relies heavily on Bombora intent data to find companies and individuals (or, more precisely, anonymous cookies) that are interested in topics relevant to a marketer’s products. This lets YesPath programs (which are rather unimaginatively called “programs”) determine which companies on the client’s target list are in active buying cycles, even before they have visited the company Web site or responded to an outbound promotion. YesPath can then reach those companies and individuals through a just-announced integration with the Madison Logic display ad network.

- persona-based programs. Marketers set up YesPath programs by uploading a list of target accounts and then defining the selection criteria for individuals to enter the program. These criteria can be considered a persona definition because they identify a set of similar individuals: in this sense, each program relates to a single persona. To create the selection criteria, users select a target audience of people who have shown interest in one or more topics and YesPath machine learning builds a model that scores how similar other individuals are to that target group. Model inputs include content consumption as sourced from Bombora, behaviors captured by a YesPath Javascript tag on the marketers’ own Web site and emails, and campaign responses imported from CRM ( only so far) and marketing automation (the first integration will be announced shortly). Selection criteria can also include data such as title imported from CRM. Accounts can be assigned to multiple programs but each individual is assigned to only one program at a time, based on whichever program’s target group they match most closely. This means that individuals from the same company with different personas will be in different programs and potentially receive different experiences.

- stage tracking within programs. In addition to assigning an account list and defining individual selection criteria, program set-up includes creating rules to classify accounts into buying stages. These rules draw on behaviors of all individuals within the account, looking primarily at direct interactions with the company Web site, CRM, and marketing automation. YesPath monitors behaviors as they occur and will reassign the account’s stage as appropriate. All individuals in the same account are considered to be in the same stage in a given program. Although stages could be used to describe a customer journey, the fact that each program has its own stage definitions means they can be used in other ways as well.

- stage-based actions. The final task in program set-up is defining actions to occur when an account reaches a new stage. Web site actions, including banner ads, modals, popups, and sliders, can be executed by YesPath itself, using its Javascript tag to identify visitors and display messages. Other actions would be sent by API to execute Madison Logic display advertising, sales campaigns or other tasks, marketing automation campaigns, or acquire net new lead names from an external source. The system could apply machine learning to select content delivered by an action, but most YesPath clients have so far preferred to select the content in advance.  The system can run split tests to assess alternative actions..

- engagement scores and reporting. YesPath assigns points to interactions such as downloads and page visits. It sums these points for all individuals in an account to create an engagement score that is its primary measure of account activity. For example, program effectiveness is measured by showing the change in engagement after the program began. Other account and program reports show the number of accounts by stage within each program; account details such as stage, days in stage, engagement and visitor counts; distribution of visitors by department and level; interest in different topics; and drill-down to individual activity details. Like other ABM vendors, YesPath says its clients have been very eager to see account reporting on its own, even  before any programs were created.

This is an intriguing mix of features. Using intent data to identify active prospects early in the buying cycle makes sense but in practice will miss many potential buyers. This isn’t a fatal flaw, since marketers can  advertise to target accounts regardless of whether they show up on intent lists, and internal data from Web, CRM, and marketing automation will add precision once prospects start engaging with the company directly. But it does mean this feature is likely to be less powerful than users might expect.

My greater concern is the system’s approach to journey management. Automatically moving individuals among programs and moving accounts to new program stages sounds great: the system dynamically reacts to individual behaviors without defining every path in advance. But users must manually assign accounts to programs, select the individuals used to train the machine learning models, write stage definition rules, and assign actions to stages and messages to actions. It will take a very savvy user to design these elements so they interact in a way that delivers the desired customer experience. The challenge is even greater because actions can only be triggered by a stage change: this means that even a simple multi-step campaign would require multiple stages with tightly written rules to ensure the timing works as intended and that individuals are not reassigned to other programs midstream. And, since stages are assigned at the account level, additional cleverness would be needed to run people through the program at different times. YesPath managers argue their approach makes it easier to manage complex customer journeys than traditional campaign workflows, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps YesPath will find its niche as a way to manage relatively simple experiences, such as account-based advertising campaigns keyed to the buying cycle.

Pricing of YesPath is based on the number of accounts in the system and starts at $3,000 per month for 500 accounts. The system was launched in March 2016 and had ten clients as of June.
* I’m talking here about ABM database and orchestration systems, not ABM data providers or advertising vendors.  Data inputs and message delivery are needed regardless of what core marketing systems a client uses.

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